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A new report can help cities weigh safety, access and equity considerations when deciding where to locate air taxi hubs.
It may seem straight out of “The Jetsons,” but air taxis are expected to take off in urban areas as early as next year, and a new report looks at ways local leaders can prepare for them.
To help cities plan for electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or what are called eVTOLs, researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University have developed a geographic information system, or GIS-based framework for finding the best place for eVTOL aircraft and the ground hubs, or vertiports, they need for passenger boarding, aircraft maintenance and charging as well as takeoff and landing.
eVOTLs are on-demand vehicles that can move people and cargo at low altitudes (60 miles or less) and cruising speeds of 150 mph. Researchers envision them initially being used for transporting medical devices, prescriptions and even patients, which will help expand the logistical support for a statewide approach.
These six-passenger aircraft will eventually help alleviate traffic congestion by reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles in urban areas and ultimately lowering greenhouse gas emissions, according to the May report. That’s critical given that the United Nations forecasts the percentage of the world’s population living in cities to hit 60% by 2030 and 67% by 2050.
“Analyzing the ‘where’ is a valuable first step for comprehensive plan development,” the report states. When community leaders layer safety, access and equity features into composite maps they can better inform the public and decision-makers who will need to create development plans and amend zoning laws to accommodate eVOTL flights and the associated vertiports.
In determining what makes cities suitable for vertiports and eVOTLs, the researchers looked at safety, access and equity. For the former, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to be responsible for setting safety standards, as it does for existing aircraft, the report states, adding that the transportation sector needs a separate air traffic control strategy specific to eVOTLs. It should encompass four areas: use of existing regulations, establishment of air-road police forces, profiling and background checks of eVOTL owners and operators, and setting no-fly zones around sensitive locations, such as military bases and power plants.
For access, the report recommends cities plan for eVOTL travel routes based on existing major roads and freeways and locating vertiports in areas with easy access to likely destinations or for transfer to other transportation modes.
It’s expected that existing helicopter infrastructure will first be reconfigured to support vertiports, but ground-based eVOTL infrastructure will eventually become dominant, the report states. As a result, cities must consider several factors when evaluating vertiport locations: flight obstructions (e.g., tall buildings), noise pollution and access to sufficient electricity to power eVTOLs.
Ultimately, advanced air mobility, or AAM, the broad term for the new transportation mode, must be implemented on a regional scale, the report states. “A regional transit network needs efficient flight paths connecting the periphery to the urban core, and to neighboring cities and/or employment hubs,” according to the report. Collaboration between regional agencies and federally funded transportation policy-making organizations will be essential in defining roles and responsibilities.
The report also recommends the establishment of an advisory committee for documenting and determining the wants and needs of local communities.
“As AAM transportation infrastructure is incorporated into cities, planners must be cautious of accessibility and land use when selecting locations,” the report states. For instance, they must consider walkability, reduced congestion and improved transit coverage. “Designing AAM with multimodal transit requires planners and stakeholders to account for accessibility in both physical and ethical senses and for walkability to and from these locations.”
The researchers arrived at these conclusions and recommendations after using the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study. They used GIS to help identify vertiport locations in urban, suburban and exurban areas there.
The paper outlines six steps for city planners using GIS modeling to assess suitability for AAM. The first is to establish safety, access and equity parameters. Second, planners should recognize that safety, access and equity are features of all variables selected for GIS analysis of vertiport site suitability. Variables might include data on parcel size, characteristics of neighboring land, job density, multimodal transit options and available parking. The researchers assigned each variable a low, medium or high importance based on whether the area was urban, suburban or exurban. Using the matrix, planners could, for example, increase safety by selecting larger parcels that are located away from schools and power lines.
The next step is gathering the data needed, including socioeconomic and zoning data. Fourth is data aggregation for geoprocessing, fifth is finding suitable parcels and last is recommending sites for vertiports.
Before long advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and digital twins will be available for this kind of analysis, but the researchers said their matrices can help the public, advocates, communities and local agencies that have no GIS-trained staff to use a simple geoprocessing workflow to identify possible future vertiport locations.
Efforts are already under way to make use of eVOTLs. This month, United and its partner Eve Air Mobility announced plans to start flying air taxis in the Bay Area in 2026, while a vertiport in Osceola County, Florida, will be completed next year. It will be part of a planned network of at least 10 vertiports connecting major Sunshine State cities such as Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
Last year, Long Beach, California, said it’s working with Wisk Aero to develop air taxis, and in August 2022, the Ohio Department of Transportation released the nation’s first advanced air mobility framework.
In France, a research project using a digital twin is examining how a vertiport would interact with cities and airports.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.